The governing board of Iowa's three public universities will vote on a plan that would freeze tuition rates for in-state undergraduates for the third straight year, key members said Thursday.
In a surprise, three members of the Iowa Board of Regents announced they would support a freeze instead of a proposal unveiled last week to raise tuition rates by 1.75 percent, or $116 per student.
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The nine-member board will vote on the plan in December. Leaders said they would spend the coming weeks studying how tuition rates for students from other states and graduate students should be set.
Board President Bruce Rastetter said the tuition freeze should be possible as a result of the "significant savings" the universities are expected to see from a cost-cutting initiative. He cautioned, however, that lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad needed to support the universities' request for state funding increases next year to make it possible.
With backing from lawmakers, the board froze tuition rates for the current and prior school years for the first time since the 1970s. Branstad, whose appointees run the board, has touted that as a historic achievement that has helped keep college affordable. Tuition and mandatory fees cost $8,079 this year at the University of Iowa and slightly less at the other two schools.
Regent Larry McKibben, a former Republican lawmaker and Marshalltown attorney, said Thursday the state's efforts weren't good enough because Iowa's graduates still have the sixth-highest debt levels in the nation. He announced he would push for the freeze even after some student leaders told the board they could support a modest increase.
McKibben said he had heard from other middle- and low-income families who are struggling to get their kids through college. He said the proposed tuition increase was small but nonetheless unacceptable.
"It's a slippery slope. You start it as a little one. Then next year we have more needs. And a little one becomes a bigger one. We've all been through that process," he said.
Rastetter and Regent Ruth Harkin, the wife of outgoing Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, said they would also support the freeze. Other regents didn't immediately take a public position.
The proposed increase in tuition and mandatory fees was expected to generate $14.5 million in new revenue for the universities and make up for the cost of inflation. Board members said they wanted more information on plans to increase mandatory fees, with some saying a $68 bump for University of Northern Iowa students was too high.
Leaders of Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa expressed concern about how forgoing some of the new revenue might affect their campuses. ISU President Steven Leath cautioned that the school's enrollment had grown rapidly in recent years to nearly 35,000 students, which he said requires "a lot of resources to maintain quality."
"I feel compelled to remind the board that access and affordability without quality is no bargain," Leath said.
UNI Interim Provost Michael Licari said the freeze would fall hardest on his campus, which features 90 percent of the students from Iowa. UI President Sally Mason said she supported a freeze.